Congress

Trump administration proposal would ease environmental impact reviews for federal projects

Proposal raises stakes for environmentalists fearful of what changes could mean for efforts to combat climate change

A Trump administration proposal would expand the number of projects like pipelines and fossil fuel drilling sites that are eligible to avoid comprehensive environmental impact studies. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images file photo)

The Trump administration proposed sweeping changes to how the government reviews the environmental impacts of infrastructure projects, a move that could put President Donald Trump’s energy and transportation policy ambitions on a glide path should he win re-election.

The proposed rule announced by the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality on Thursday would be the first major shift to implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act in four decades and is intended to streamline the federal environmental review process by allowing the government to approve pipelines and highways at a more efficient clip.

Speaking on the proposed rule at the White House, Trump touted how it would remove bureaucratic obstacles in the way of infrastructure projects. “I’ve been talking about it for a very long time, where it takes many, many years to get something built, get something done in any way. The builders aren’t happy, nobody’s happy. It takes 20 years, it takes 30 years, it takes numbers that nobody would believe.”

Under NEPA, federal agencies are required to assess the degree to which their actions could impact a broad array of environmental factors, including air and water quality and endangered species.

If finalized, the proposed rule would expand the number of projects eligible to avoid comprehensive reviews under NEPA and regulators would be allowed to apply more so-called categorical exclusions, in which officials determine that a project has no significant impact on the environment and does not need a thorough analysis.

‘Cumulative effects’

 

The rule would state that the federal government does not need to review the “cumulative effects” of a project, which environmentalists believe will result in officials ignoring the impacts that fossil fuel projects like drilling sites and pipelines may have on climate change. It would also set page limits for the length of environmental review documents.

The White House Council on Environmental Quality chairwoman Mary Neumayr told reporters on a call Thursday morning that the changes would not change implementation of any other federal environmental law and would “not exclude consideration” of climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions in NEPA analysis.

Democrats were quick to pan the proposal, noting that environmental reviews help make major highway and other infrastructure projects more resilient to climate change.

“Not only is removing these requirements a bad idea for public health and our environment, but it will end up costing taxpayers more when projects aren’t built to be resilient,” sad Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “You can be sure I will use all the tools at my disposal to stop this misguided proposal.”   

Republicans, meanwhile, applauded the measure for its red tape-cutting provisions.

“Streamlining the review of proposed roads, bridges, and other critical infrastructure projects will save the taxpayers money while maintaining necessary protections for the environment, public safety, and human health, said Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., ranking member of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

‘Energy dominance’

 

In pursuit of what officials have called an “energy dominance” agenda, the Trump administration has worked to slash red tape standing in the way of increasing fossil fuel leasing and constructing new pipeline infrastructure.

At the same time, the administration has suffered losses in court as some federal judges have sided with environmentalists that certain NEPA reviews failed to consider the impacts of climate change, including for permitting the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. 

It’s unlikely the rule will be finalized soon enough for the government to start using the updated review criteria before the 2020 general election. Still, the proposal raises the stakes for environmentalists fearful of what the changes could mean for efforts to combat climate change. 

“We’re hopeful that these rules get defeated. We think that the American people are going to speak out,” said Drew McConville, senior managing director at the Wilderness Society. “The longer these rules are in place, the deeper the hole we are digging for public health, for public lands and for the country.”

Neumayr said the proposed rule would be published in the Federal Register on Friday and be subject to a 60-day public comment period.   

Jessica Wehrman contributed to this report.

 

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